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Quick as a bolt of lightning

Tom Clyde, Park Record columnist

My heart goes out to the people who lost their homes in the Rockport fire. At the time I’m writing this, the fire is still burning, and while it looks pretty calm in the cool of the morning, there’s no telling what will happen as the day heats up and the wind comes back.

Hopefully, the worst is over. For the people who have lost everything, it’s maybe just beginning. Even the houses that weren’t physically damaged will be so smoky that they will be unlivable for a while. And for the people who have the clothes on their backs and not much else, the process of rebuilding hasn’t really started yet. But everybody got out alive.

I’m often pretty critical of our local officials who seem to spend far too much time chasing trivial issues down one rabbit hole or another. But when something like the Rockport fire hits, it is local government that is on the ground dealing with it. All those disaster-management plans that get labored over and stuck in a drawer someplace get pulled out, and from all appearances, the planning worked.

The coordination between county government, the school districts and the LDS Church, which has big buildings immediately available for shelters, didn’t happen just by chance. Somebody had the phone numbers of whom to contact, and when the power was cut at one location so the firefighters didn’t have to worry about live wires falling on them or starting new fires when they hit the ground. Shelters were moved and different arrangements made. It worked. In the middle of that, they counted ballots in the primary.

The multiple fire agencies responded and did the impossible things that firefighters do. They practice this all the time, both the pros and the volunteers. How anybody has the cojones to run into the fire while everybody else is running for their lives in the other direction is something I will never understand. But thank God we have them, and thank God they all made it out safe and sound.

My house is 30 miles from the fire. The smoke still choked the valley and the sky changed color ominously in a matter of seconds. The information I had on the fire was available on TV. I knew exactly where to go and what to do, except that I didn’t need to do anything other than stay home, out of the way. For the people involved, their TV was back up in the path of the fire, and the power was out so they couldn’t watch it anyway.

The county has a reverse 911 system to call every phone in the affected area with emergency notifications. It seems simple, except where it’s not. I don’t know about this neighborhood, but there are other neighborhoods like Tollgate Canyon where there isn’t phone service. It doesn’t matter how good the reverse 911 system is if nobody has a home phone.

The people in the Rockport area seemed to be exchanging information on cell phones. In my neighborhood, we have no cell service. So if you are out of the house away from the land line, your link to the outside is the car radio.

In the hinterlands, we heat with propane. The harder the place is to get to, the larger the tank is, so you don’t have to try to get the truck in to refill during the winter. So everybody has 1,000 gallons or more of propane parked outside waiting to explode. That has to complicate the firefighting.

For all of us who live in these special places that are almost off the grid and closer to nature than to normal services, the threat of a fire like this is always there. It doesn’t matter if you are at the top of Tollgate Canyon or Deer Crest. When you live in the mountains in forested terrain, the risk is there.

It’s been probably 10 years or so since there was a fire near my house, up in the Bench Creek/Little South Fork area. It never got closer than a mile, but the ash was falling from the sky like snow, and when a pine tree burst into flames, the fire shot up over the horizon like a volcano.

There were no evacuation orders or immediate threats to the neighborhood. But before I went to bed that night, I packed the car. It was hard to know what to grab, even with the luxury of time that the people in Rockport didn’t have. It’s hard to remember what I thought needed to be saved. When I put it all away the next day, I was puzzled by some of the choices. It is good to have some plan. It’s better to have a good plan.

Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.


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